Creationism creeps into mainstream geology

by Steven Newton
Thursday, January 5, 2012

Field trip 409 at Red Rock Canyon Open Space near Colorado Springs, Colo. Steven Newton

Steve Austin, chair of the geology department at the Institute for Creation Research, was one of the field trip leaders. Steven Newton

It was easy to miss the part where the field trip leader said the outcrop formed during Noah’s Flood. After all, “During these catastrophic flood flows, turbulent, hyperconcentrated suspensions were observed to transform laminar mudflows” sounds like a reasonable description of alluvial fan processes. And “massive marine transgression” sounds scientific enough. But when creationist geologists use those phrases, they take on a very different meaning.

In almost every way, the “Garden of the Gods at Colorado Springs” excursion at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America (GSA) last year was a normal — even enjoyable — field trip. Standard geologic terminology was used in the accompanying field trip guide, and throughout the trip itself. The trip leaders discussed past events in terms of millions and billions of years. At each stop along the trip, the guides relied on orthodox geologic thinking, including a standard examination of sedimentary features and the nature of contacts between units.

But in reality, the trip was anything but a normal geology field trip. Instead, it was an example of a new strategy from creationists to interject their ideas into mainstream geology: They lead field trips and present posters and talks at scientific meetings. They also avoid overtly stating anything truly contrary to mainstream science.

But when the meeting is over, the creationist participants go home and proudly proclaim that mainstream science has accepted their ideas. It’s a crafty way of giving credence to creationism. But is there anything mainstream scientists, or the conveners of meetings and field trips, can or should do about it?

The Leaders

Together with about 50 attendees, I attended field trip 409 at the GSA meeting last October. The trip took us from Denver, where the meeting was held, to the area surrounding Garden of the Gods National Natural Landmark in Colorado Springs. The point, according to the field trip guide, was “to observe and discuss the processes of sedimentation and tectonics at superb exposures near the Garden of the Gods.”

Many attendees seemed unaware of the backgrounds of the five trip co-leaders: Steve Austin, Marcus Ross, Tim Clarey, John Whitmore and Bill Hoesch. Austin is probably the most well-known; he is chair of the geology department at the Institute for Creation Research, which describes itself as the “leader in scientific research from a biblical perspective, conducting innovative laboratory and field research in the major disciplines of science.” Austin has been very active in promoting a Noah’s Flood interpretation of the geology of the Grand Canyon.

Ross is a former Discovery Institute fellow, currently an assistant professor of geology at Liberty University in Virginia (the self-proclaimed largest Christian university in the world). The University of Rhode Island granted him a doctorate in geology in 2006 even though he professed that Earth was at most 10,000 years old. Clarey is a geology professor at Delta College, a community college in Michigan. Whitmore is a geology professor at Cedarville University, a liberal arts Christian college in Ohio. Hoesch is a staff research geologist with the Institute for Creation Research.

During the trip, the leaders did not advertise their creationist views, but rather presented their credentials in a way that minimized their creationist affiliations. Austin introduced himself as a geologic consultant. Hoesch said he worked “in a small museum in the San Diego area” (referring to his job as curator of the Creation and Earth History Museum in Santee, Calif., which was founded by the Institute for Creation Research and is now operated by the Light and Life Foundation). Likewise, Whitmore did not offer that Cedarville’s official doctrinal statement declares, “We believe in the literal six-day account of creation” and requires that all faculty “must be born-again Christians” who “agree with our doctrinal statement.”

Furthermore, the field trip leaders were careful not to make overt creationist references. If the 50 or so field trip participants did not know the subtext and weren’t familiar with the field trip leaders, it’s quite possible that they never realized that the leaders endorsed geologic interpretations completely at odds with the scientific community. Even the GSA Sedimentary Geology Division had initially signed on as a sponsor of the trip (though they backed out once they learned the views of the trip leaders).

But the leaders' Young-Earth Creationist views were apparent in rhetorical subtleties. For example, when Austin referred to Cambrian outcrops, he described them as rocks that are “called Cambrian.” It’s an odd phrasing, allowing use of the proper geologic term while subtly denying its implications. In one instance, when Austin was asked by a trip attendee about the age of a rock unit, he responded somewhat cryptically, “Wherever you want to go there.” Such phrasing was telling, if you knew what to listen for.

Out in the Field

Subtext about the age of formations was a big part of the Young-Earth Creationist rhetoric on the trip. As we moved on to each field trip stop, a narrative began to emerge: the creationist concept of Noah’s Flood as explanation for the outcrops. Although no one uttered the words “Noachian Flood,” the guides' descriptions of the geology were revealing and rather coy. For example, at the first stop — a trail off Highway 24 near Manitou Springs — Austin stated that the configuration of the units was “the same over North America,” and had been formed by a massive marine transgression. “Whatever submerged the continent,” Austin went on, it must have been huge in scale.

At the second stop, Austin pointed to car-sized boulders in a roadcut exposure of the sedimentary Fountain Formation. In contrast to the standard interpretation of the Fountain Formation as formed by an alluvial fan, Austin said that these rocks were “not normal deposits,” and likely formed as fast, liquefied and pressurized subaqueous mudflows during catastrophic flood flows. His description — and the description in the field trip guide — are very similar to an abstract Austin wrote in 2010 for a talk he gave at the Creation Geology Society meeting, in which he discussed “higher sediment movement efficiency” allowed by “liquefied sediment” moving as “thin, laminar currents beneath the mass of the ocean” — during the “Global Flood.” For the GSA audience, Austin made the same argument — he simply omitted the phrase “Global Flood.”

At Garden of the Gods park, the field trip guides argued that exposures of Lyon Sandstone — which “closely resemble the Coconino Sandstone of Arizona” — have been misinterpreted as eolian (wind-blown). Moreover, they said, these rocks have an unusually broad geographic extent, suggesting erosion and deposition on a continental rather than local scale. Again, reading between the lines: They’re not wind-blown deposits, they’re deposits from Noah’s Flood.

Another example involves examination of sedimentary “injectite” dikes, the occurrence of which was described by Hoesch as “unique in the world.” Hoesch stated that injectites formed by “forceful injection of fluidized sand into granite walls that apparently opened by simple dilation.” Although he presented these injectites as a probable byproduct of the Laramide orogeny, and thus within the framework of standard geology, Hoesch has previously used the same features to argue for Young-Earth Creationism: In a 2008 article for the Institute for Creation Research’s Acts & Facts publication, Hoesch wrote that injectites may indicate soft sediment deformation.

The problem for geologists, Hoesch wrote, is that some strata must therefore have been “in a soft condition for more than 100 million years (according to standard age assignments).” Hoesch notes that the idea of “a major portion of the sedimentary record being soft at the same time in the past does not fit well with an evolutionary timescale. It does, however, fit well with the Flood.”

We weren’t always treated to Young-Earth allusions. At the Red Rock Canyon Open Space, Ross delivered an informative tour of sediments recording the edge of the Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway, with the geologic ages and fossil zones presented in accordance with standard geology. But in general, the outcrops that the leaders described on the field trip using standard geology have also been presented to creationist audiences as evidence for Young-Earth Creationism.

A Growing Trend

Field trip 409 was not the first such creationist-led geology excursion at a GSA meeting. At the 2009 annual GSA meeting in Portland, Ore., four of the five trip leaders (Austin, Whitmore, Clarey and Ross) organized a field trip to Mount St. Helens to examine catastrophic erosion resulting from the 1980 eruption. After that trip, the Institute for Creation Research ran a headline bragging, “Christian Geologists Influential at GSA Meeting,” noting that Austin’s “peer-reviewed manuscript was published by GSA.”

In truth, every field trip guide that year was published in the book “Volcanoes to Vineyards.” Austin’s guide, “The dynamic landscape on the north flank of Mount St. Helens,” followed normal geologic thinking and contained no direct creationist arguments — though attempts to link Mount St. Helens to the Grand Canyon erosional processes might have proved puzzling to attendees.

Meanwhile, the Institute for Creation Research also touts its believers' presentations at these scientific meetings. “Christian geologists found various ways to bring attention to their practice and faith — by leading a field trip [and] delivering scientific papers…” according to a press release by the institute in December 2009.

Creationists also used the 2010 GSA meeting to present papers and posters. No fewer than four posters associated with Cedarville University argued against the standard geologic interpretations of the Coconino Sandstone, a well-studied formation, but one that provides a real problem for a Flood Geology interpretation (see sidebar). And Ross delivered a talk about using fossils to develop general stratigraphic frameworks in the Late Cretaceous.

It should be emphasized that these posters and Ross' talk appeared to follow standard geologic practices in preparing samples and collecting data. Thin sections were made, statistics were tabulated, petrographic data were tallied. A casual GSA attendee, innocent of the larger context, would probably not understand the latent purpose of this research.

But that purpose is easy to find. A simple Google search reveals the Cedarville press office boasting that its students demonstrated that the Coconino “was not deposited in a desert, as most believe, but was deposited underwater” — during Noah’s Flood — and that “Cedarville leaders talked about alternative views for how the rocks formed, emphasizing short time spans and catastrophic formation of the rocks rather than slow formation over millions of years.”

“Millions of years” was a phrase that also appeared in Ross' talk on Late Cretaceous marine stratigraphy; many of his slides used normal geologic time, with millions of years clearly labeled on axes. Nothing in his 15-minute talk hinted at nonstandard geologic thinking. Because most of the audience probably did not know Ross' background, it must have been puzzling to them when the first question following Ross' talk challenged him on how he could “harmonize this work with [his] belief in a 6,000-year-old Earth.” (This question came from University of Florida geology professor Joe Meert, who blogged about the exchange.)

Ross answered the question by saying that for a scientific meeting such as GSA, he thought in a “framework” of standard science; but for a creationist audience, he said, he used a creationist framework. Judging from the reaction of the audience, this answer caused more confusion than enlightenment. Ross pointed out that nothing in his presentation involved Young-Earth Creationism. But he then volunteered that he was indeed a Young-Earth Creationist.

It was a strange moment for the audience. It was the last talk of the session, and as everyone migrated into the hallway, several people asked me what had just happened, as if they had misheard the exchange. A few people seemed taken aback at the harsh tone between Ross and Meert.

That exchange brings up an oft-mentioned problem in science communication: To many outside observers, those on the scientific side can sometimes come across as confrontational, while those in the creationist camp often maintain a cheerful, friendly demeanor. Ross' presentation, and my interactions on the field trip, confirmed this observation: All the trip leaders were courteous and friendly, and seemed genuinely concerned that all attendees enjoyed a safe, pleasant trip. Although the trip leaders probably knew that I strongly disagreed with them on the science (my name badge clearly identified my affiliation with the National Center for Science Education), they were never disagreeable about it. Quite the contrary — they seemed to go out of their way to be friendly.

Regardless of the degree of friendliness of the creationist trip leaders, some in the science community may argue that an organization such as GSA should not allow creationist-led field trips. Some may go even further, and suggest that posters and talks by known creationists not be approved.

I think such actions would be a mistake.

The Pitfalls of Exclusion

One of the most potent claims creationists can make is that their views are being censored by the scientific community. This stance allows them to play the martyr, to appeal to fairness and to accuse scientists of stifling rival ideas. There are plenty of examples throughout history of scientists having difficulties promoting “radical” ideas that are later accepted, such as geologist Harlen Bretz’s hypothesis that the Channeled Scablands in eastern Washington formed from glacial lake outburst floods, or the resistance Walter Alvarez encountered when first suggesting that a meteorite impact killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The creationists, if excluded from participating in such meetings, could easily spin this by saying the geologic community is afraid of their ideas, which they say will ultimately be vindicated, just like the ideas of Bretz and Alvarez.

So I believe that they should not be kept out of meetings, where heterodoxy, after all, is encouraged: We let a thousand flowers bloom, weeds and all. The best ideas from the meetings are further subjected to peer review in journals, which is where theories are built; conferences are more freeform. Geology will not suffer if creationists participate in our meetings, but the public relations damage from the misperception that we are systematically hostile to any view — especially religious views — is real.

Field trips, papers and posters should be judged acceptable if they meet established criteria. To lead a GSA field trip, one has to submit a trip proposal along with biographical information qualifying one to lead a trip. Furthermore, according to GSA, “Field trips may be submitted by any member of GSA, its affiliated societies or anyone else.” There is no criterion for content, and obviously, the religious views of organizers are irrelevant. Field trip 409 qualified and rightly was accepted — though the Sedimentary Geology Division equally rightly declined to endorse it.

Creationists may come to conclusions that the geological community challenges, but as long as they present their conclusions as derived from accepted scientific methodology, rather than religion, it is unfair to reject their participation. In any event, the field trip I attended was not a platform for proselytizing to participants, but involved real observations on real outcrops — even if the perspective was slanted towards a nonstandard interpretation. No harm, no foul.

Creationists will continue to promote Flood Geology and their radical interpretation of Grand Canyon strata because a young Earth is critical to their rejection of evolution. As in Field trip 409, observations are often made that are indistinguishable from standard geology, but young-Earth conclusions drawn from them are unwarranted. Both the observations and the conclusions should be vigorously challenged: Creationists have a bad track record for careful methodology, and they systematically omit observations that disprove their model. But such evaluations are part of normal science, and applying them to creationist claims — rather than banning creationists from our meetings — is healthy for the field, and it avoids letting creationists claim the mantle of the martyr.

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